Two weeks ago, I was invited by Andrew Weaver to be part of a three-person panel at a Public Forum on Sewage Treatment. In front of a standing room only crowd at the Oak Bay Rec Centre, it was clear to me how much passion and anxiety there is about sewage treatment in the CRD. It was also clear, in the question and answer period, how sewage treatment seems to have becoming a polarizing issue for people who, for the most part, agree that we need to treat our sewage. The question that remains, and the divisive question, is how best do we do this?

Andrew asked me to discuss what local councils and elected officials can do to ensure that CRD residents get the best plan possible. Here’s what I said. 

1. Listen to Residents
I hear on a regular basis, “The public is apathetic. Voter turnout is low. People don’t really seem to be paying attention or care about municipal issues, etc.” But then, when a wide, and growing, sector of the public steps up and says, “Hold on CRD officials, we’re not convinced this is the best sewage treatment plan for the region,” when volunteers take the time and effort to propose an alternate plan (The R.I.T.E. Plan), when hundreds of people come to open houses, pack land use committee and council meetings, ask questions and speak up, they’re treated like a nuisance. There’s a sense that some CRD Directors and staff wish that these people would sit down, shut up, and just let the CRD get on with its plan. 

This is not an authentic way to engage the public. It does not welcome public participation or take public input into consideration in order to create the best possible sewage treatment plan, for the long term. And this is the goal – the best plan for the long term. As elected officials we have a responsibility to listen to what our residents are saying and to consider their input in our decision-making processes. It is the public who is paying for this project.

2. Extend the Timeline
I’m proud of my Victoria Council colleague and CRD Director
 Marianne Alto, who is putting forward a motion to ask the CRD board to ask the province to extend the timeline of the project to 2020. Extending the timeline will allow the CRD to bring the project up to date by considering again a distributed, tertiary sewage treatment system that incorporates technology dismissed five years ago as too expensive. 

As Andrew Weaver points out, the deadline is somewhat arbitrary. The CRD is currently required by the Province to treat its sewage by 2016. The Federal regulations set a deadline of 2020. Weaver said at the forum that the CRD will need to ask the Province to extend the deadline to at least 2018 because that’s when the proposed project is set to become operational. So why not ask for an extension to 2020 to align with the Federal requirements. Furthermore, and thankfully, Esquimalt Council has not approved the necessary zoning that the CRD would require to build the proposed plant. And no contract has been awarded for the construction of the plant. 

Residents and elected officials need to make the case that more time will result in a better plan, because the proposed plan is not good enough; I’ll say why in a moment. Alto’s motion will be debated at the February 12th CRD Board meeting which begins at 1:30pm in the CRD’s sixth floor board room (625 Fisgard St). Here’s a list of CRD Directors and their contact information. Whether you’re for or against extending the timeline, please take the time to write to CRD Directors and share your thoughts. When elected officials receive hundreds of emails from the public, we take note.

3. Move Beyond Sustainability and Design for Abundance
In The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability, Designing for Abundance, William McDonough and Michael Braungart make the case that sustainability is no longer a good enough aspiration. The authors ask us to, “Think about attempting to fall in love less wastefully. Or what about an efficient child or an efficient childhood? Terrible, right? Children, and childhood, can be – and we prefer them to be – full of richness, diverse enjoyments, fruitfulness, digressions, wanderings, imagination and creativity. Who would want a simply ‘sustainable’ marriage? Humans can certainly aspire to  more than that. In all of life, people can think big.”

Looking at sewage treatment through this lens is important both politically and economically. Politically, designing for abundance – which I’ll discuss in a moment – has the potential to bring key organizations on board for a better plan. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Georgia Strait Alliance have been key and vocal supporters of the CRD’s proposed plan and they are also champions of sustainability. But what if these organizations and others could begin to embrace the idea that sustainability – what McDonough and Braungart call “doing less bad” rather than “more good” – is no longer good enough. And what if they could begin to advocate for a plan that does even better than the sustainable treatment of sewage.

Part of ‘thinking big’ about sewage treatment is to look at sewage as a source of nutrients and income rather than as a liability and cost. Here’s where the economics come in, and the ‘upcycling’ of waste into money.

sewage_treatment_is_nutrient_recovery.jpg

Without going into too many details, here’s one way (and there are more) that the CRD could recover nutrients and earn revenue, by treating our sewage. Everyone who grows food knows that phosphate is one of the key ingredients in soil health. What may be less well known is that there is a huge demand on the world market for slow-release phosphate. According to McDonough and Braungart – and as illustrated in this diagram from The Upcycle – nutrient-recovery from sewage is one way to meet this demand.

There is a technology (developed in Vancouver!) available for recovering phosphate from sewage. And, this technology is already part of the CRD’s plan. But because the plan proposes only secondary treatment, which captures the sludge but releases the majority of the ‘waste water’ back into the ocean rather than treating it, there is a huge loss of potential revenue through phosphate recovery. At the Clover Point and McCaulay Point Pump stations combined, 264 tonnes of phosphorous go back into the ocean each year, and will continue to do so with the CRD’s proposed sewage treatment plan. That is a lot of potential revenue being flushed out to sea.

So, finally, how do we begin to design for abundance? We begin with a clear statement of intention that will guide a project from conception to implementation. If we look at what proponents of the current CRD plan are saying we might guess that the statement of intention around the project from the outset went something like this:

“We have to treat our sewage because upper levels of government told us to do it and it’s the right thing to do for the environment and we need to do it in a way that will cost taxpayers as little money as possible in the short term.” 

Compare that against this: “Let’s design and build a sewage treatment / nutrient recovery system that generates revenue and an abundance of useable energy and water for the short, medium and long term.”

If not now, then when? We are building this key piece of infrastructure for the long term, for the next generations. We need to get it right. Our children and their children deserve it.

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